Let me paint the picture.
From the first moment of your existence there is a longing, a drive, a need, for growth. From two cells to four to eight to however many you are now – your time in the womb is a furious journey of progress and development. Ever-increasing complexity and size, your bones and lungs and muscles stretch and twist, and when you’re ready for another challenge you come out into the world. Born into a new sensory experience of light and noises and air for your lungs, the womb is over but growing has only just begun.
Your life is marked with milestones of rapid succession, most of them beginning with “your first …”. First bath, first toy, first steps, first words, first tooth, first birthday, first day of preschool, first day of school, and a million others.
And up in school you go, progressing through the years to more and more complex subjects, responsibilities and achievements - all the while your body is changing, becoming taller, faster, stronger. On the horizon of primary school is high school, and immediately after you reach it there on the horizon is graduating.
Your first formal, first kiss, your driver’s license. It seems you can’t go too many weeks before you achieve something or reach a new ‘stage’. And as you grow and graduate you’re learning new things all the time. Your understanding of the world expands, your relationships and social circles double and triple, even your understanding of who your parents are as real people, it all keeps rushing in and onward.
Out of school and into university, you get a job and your own car and your own girlfriend. You live in a flat with friends, you’re out of home for the first time, paying electricity bills and rego and you vote for the Prime Minister of Australia. Maybe a friend gets married and it’s the first time you’ve really cared about a wedding. Maybe a friend dies and it’s the first time you’ve come to terms with death. You crash your car, your relationship breaks up and your lease isn’t renewed. It’s hard, it’s not necessarily ‘progress’ but it’s still all new.
And up and up and up you’ve gone, always climbing higher, ever higher. Onward, upward, farther, greater, stronger, wiser, bigger, better. Life has been a mad dash for progress. It has been a frenzied succession of milestones, achievements and experiences. And just as you hit your mid twenties, you’re all of a sudden adrift in the calm and directionless sea of adulthood.
Nothing’s really changed and nothing’s really gone, but that’s the problem. You’re used to ‘new’, but now nothing’s new. You’ve been taught to reach milestones, but now the next one isn’t clear. We’ve been conditioned for development – fifteen years of education and twenty odd years of growing up taught us that. But now the task of getting on and living seems almost anticlimactic.
We’ve gone sprinting through the corridors of life, surrounded by the cheers of teachers, parents, peers and then all of sudden as we cross the next line we’re out the door, out of the race, out of the spotlight, lost and far away.
But it’s more than just that we have stopped rattling forward with ever-increasing progress, it feels as if we are going backwards. Our social circles have narrowed, friends have married and moved away. Our time is limited with work hours and work priorities. We feel the loss of our youthful energy, our childlike zeal, our ability to keep bouncing back. For a group of people who have always been assessed on their progress, this stage can be confused with regression or failure.
And while it’s not a problem to face this change, it seems to me that a lot of people have been caught off guard by it. We may not be ascending the ladder at the pace we’re used to, or charting new territory, yet there is something significant to be said for the virtue of persistence. Having been trained and formed over two and a half decades, we have emerged, equipped to do real life. The new challenge is to keep on being the people we have become. The ‘next step’ isn’t as clear but for now the task is to carry on with the work we have, and the relationships we have, in the time we have.
For the Christian person this is especially true. After the flurry of high school years – as we learned new and exciting truths every week, while fighting against real and suffocating pressures – the challenge is to now persist in those truths. The unimpressive call is for us to now live out what we believe, to keep fighting sin and to keep returning to the gospel of Jesus’ cross. We have not been running a race to an anticlimactic finish line, but we have been athletes in training, who now arrive at the real event. Things aren’t as simple or novel as they were in practice, but they have a new quality, a more subtle one, a significance we haven’t encountered before.
And while faith, work, love, and relationships might not be what we expected. And we find ourselves being slowly weaned from the excitement of ‘new achievements’. We need the reassuring reminder that we haven’t regressed and we aren’t adrift. Far from having anticlimactically departed from the main event, we have just now arrived at the starting line. In what can feel like a disappointingly ordinary stage, we need to be reminded that this is real life, and the task for us now is to get on and live it.
Sam Manchester is currently a theology student with an inescapable sociology degree behind him. In an attempt to reconcile the two, he reflects and writes about their coalescence in everyday life.
Sam's archive of articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-manchester.html